The previous article gave us a brief glimpse of some of the things fans in the 1940s
did in the 'real' world. Truth be told, there are probably as many interesting
stories about things that fans do in their everyday lives outside of fandom as there
are stories of fandom itself, the following article being a good example. The writer
has been active in fandom almost as long as we have (his fanzine collection has even
been perused by writer Sharyn McCrumb to learn about fandom for her novel Bimbos
of the Death Sun, but that's another story). As we'll see, however, some of his
'real' world adventures are a bit more exciting than most fan activities.
It was only my third night on duty at the Washington County, Virginia, Fire/Rescue Dept. and I and the five other firefighters present were sitting in the TV room watching a Jackie Chan movie that one of them had rented. I, as the most junior firefighter present that night, had spent the first few hours of my shift washing the oldest and dirtiest of our three fire trucks, a 1975 International that I suspected had not previously been washed since disco was popular -- the first time. There's a lot to wash on a fire truck and I was ready to goof off for a little while. As I flopped down on a couch, the old hands were enjoying one of their favorite indoor sports: predicting the future.
"Well Marty," drawled our Assistant Chief, Kyle, "we gonna burn one down tonight or not?" I was starting to get used to the guys referring to answering a fire alarm as 'burning one down'.
"I think we will," answered Marty. I'd been told that he was the best in the department at predicting fires. "I'd say we'll get it about 12:30 this morning." Marty likes to make his predictions fairly specific. From reading the stack of old fire reports in the office I knew that we'd not had anything bigger than a dumpster fire in six or seven weeks and I figured the odds were that I'd be spending another quiet evening watching TV there at the station. Jackie Chan was smacking some generic bad guy around and I was starting to think about ordering out for pizza when the distinctive electronic tones of our alarm began whooping in the garage bay.
"Attention Washington County Fire/Rescue, 10-70 Structure; repeat, 10-70 Structure fire at 11857 Industrial Park Road."
The TV had been clicked off at the first tone and we all sat still while the announcement repeated. No one leaps to action when the alarm sounds like they do in the movies. We all listened carefully to the full announcement and memorized the address. Then we all quickly got up and went out to the garage bay to get ready. We each had a specific job to do. First, everyone gets into their turnout gear. That's the boots, heavy coat, pants and helmet that firefighters wear at a fire scene. Kyle then went to the office to call Central Dispatch to ask for a second alert. On any structure fire we roll out a maximum response, and with only six firefighters present our first need was for more manpower. My job was to raise the doors. Later we'd get garage door openers that we operated from the trucks, but that night we still had to do it by hand. I'd just gotten the third one up when the alarm sounded again for our second alert.
"Attention all members Washington County Fire Rescue, your department is requesting additional manpower at the station."
Marty and Kyle climbed into the cab of Engine 101, our newest and biggest pumper. Laura, Jason, and I jumped into Medic 107, one of our two ambulances. Laura is an EMT-I, a Shock Trauma technician (the next step above EMT-Basic), Jason is a Paramedic, while I was still in the first few weeks of my EMT class. As far as medical help on this trip was concerned, I was just an extra pair of hands, but sometimes that's what you need.
"Fire/Rescue 101 to dispatch. Engine 101 and Medic 107 are 10-8."
The radio '10-code' was still very new to me, but I knew that '10-8' meant 'in service', or that we were leaving the station in route to the location of the fire. My first big fire.
When you're the newest member of an ambulance crew you don't get to drive, or talk on the radio, or even run the siren. You particularly don't get to run the siren. You get to sit in back in what's called the "Captain's chair" (although I can't imagine why -- we have a Captain on our department and he never sits there) and hang on for dear life. On our ambulance this does give you a pretty good view forward and you get to see that most of the other drivers on the road in front of you haven't got the slightest idea of what to do when an ambulance comes up behind them with lights and sirens going. What the law of Virginia says they should do is pull over to the right side of the road and stop until we pass by, and in fact about one driver in twenty actually does exactly that, bless their hearts. Most simply slow down -- possibly to give themselves more time to think about their next move. Some then speed up again and some actually try to outrun us. Some pull over, let us pass, then whip out right behind us, tailgating us for miles as though they were going to go help out at the fire too. Cops love it when they catch some idiot doing that. You want to make a Virginia State Trooper happy? Just tailgate a fire truck or an ambulance on its way to a fire when he's around. They can charge you with enough violations to make you do time.
Smoke from the fire was visible about six miles away, and as we pulled into the drive we could see flames starting to break through the roof. That's bad. Usually when we see that on arrival, we can't save much of anything. Even worse was that we saw immediately that this wasn't just a structure fire, it was a double wide trailer fire. Much worse. The difference between a wooden frame house (a structure) fire and a trailer fire is about like the difference between burning a piece of heavy cardboard and a piece of notebook paper. The paper will be cold ashes long before the cardboard is halfway burned.
"Fire/Rescue 101 to central; we're on-scene. This is a double wide trailer fire, well involved, with multiple exposures. Flames are through the roof. Request a third alarm for backup, and please alert Goodson-Kinderhook to stand by with their tanker."
Notifying Central Dispatch of what we saw on arrival does a couple of things for us. Dispatch records all radio traffic and notes the time of every transmission, and so regular reports to dispatch gives us a legal record of the progress of the fire incident. That comes in handy when it's time to write the reports. Also, every other firefighter in the county listens in to these radio calls, so now they all knew what we were seeing and that we had a serious fire on our hands. There are ten volunteer fire departments in Washington County, Virginia, and each one of us sometimes find ourselves called to a fire that's too big or too complicated to handle by ourselves. Thus, we have a formal mutual aid agreement with those closest to us. Goodson-Kinderhook VFD is the one next to us, and they have a tanker. That's a fire truck whose only mission is to load, transport, and discharge water. That job is absolutely vital when the fire is out in areas of the county where there are no fire hydrants. In our case, that's a bit less than half of the county. Our fire was out in a remote area so the Assistant Chief called for the tanker that he knew he'd need right away. Our pumper only carries one thousand gallons of water on board. Without another water source we could use that up in less than ten minutes.
The first priority on arrival at a fire scene is rescue. Was there anyone in that trailer? If there was, from the looks of the fire, they were already dead, but we'd have to try. The owner was waiting in the yard when we pulled up and told us the story. It was an older woman who lived there with her husband, and small dog. (And yes, we'll try to rescue pets when we can do so without risking human life. Imagine if it was your pet in a fire. You'd certainly want us to try to save it.) Only she and the dog were at home. She had been canning beans in the kitchen and had gone to the garage to get some supplies. Apparently she'd been delayed because when she returned to the house she saw smoke coming out the open door. She had the presence of mind to shut the door and run for help. (Shutting the door seems like a good idea, but because it was a trailer and the fire had already gotten a good start by that point, it didn't help. In fact, it caused a lot of trouble for us, as will be seen.) Running to a neighbor's house to call for help had used up valuable time; by the time we arrived the fire was about twenty minutes old. Since no one was inside, we put the ambulance on standby and I went to join the fire crew. Three other firefighters had arrived; Kyle and one of them put on air packs, pulled a trash line (that's a 1¾-inch line carried on each side of Engine 101 for fast assaults; it's often used on trash dumpster fires, hence the name), took it to the back porch where the kitchen door was and started in.
That was a mistake.
The way to mount an interior attack on a house fire is to enter where the fire isn't and push the fire back on itself. This prevents forcing the fire into unburned areas of the house and deprives it of fuel. Kyle said later that he thought the fire might be contained to the porch area -- which seemed to be like a small utility building added on to the trailer. If that had been the case he might have been able to knock the fire down quickly and save more of the property.
The thing is, the fire had been burning in a closed building for some time now and Kyle was about to open the door directly into it. The textbook says never, ever to try this, but sometimes firefighters do anyway. Here's why you shouldn't: ever see the movie Backdraft? Kurt Russell plays a firefighter who never seems to use an airpack or to even fasten up his turnout coat, but never mind that... the film does realistically show the effects of a backdraft.
A fire in a closed building will quickly use up all available oxygen and die down, but not die out. It'll smolder, filling the room with superhot smoke until it gets a fresh supply of oxygen -- like when an unwary firefighter opens a door on it. That's what Kyle did. That superhot air in the room suddenly saw a huge supply of nice fresh oxygen outside and immediately tried to set it all on fire. Kyle and the other guy happened to be standing right in the way. "Well," says the fire, "let's see how well they'll burn." A cloud of fire shot out of the open door and slammed into the two firefighters, knocking them off the porch and twelve feet out into the yard. Kyle later claimed that he was already jumping when the flames hit him and that helped, but the end result was that they suddenly had to swim through fire. They did have full turnout gear on with Nomex hoods and airpacks, and this saved them. But they both had heat burns on the face and neck from where the heat cut through the hoods. They weren't seriously hurt, but they both climbed into the ambulance and were taken to the hospital. I was needed at the fire scene and stayed there.
Now the fire was more serious and was fully involved in the rear of the trailer. Our chief arrived and set the eight of us who were present to setting up two attack lines in the front with another to start wetting down the exposures. An exposure is any other house or structure near the fire that might catch fire from the original fire. At that time -- only about eight minutes into the fire attack -- he called for additional backup.
"Fire/Rescue 101 to Central -- this structure is fully involved. We request additional manpower from our backup departments and also the cascade unit from Glade Springs VFD."
By this time all the members of our fire department who could respond were either at the fire scene or on their way. Additionally, four members of Goodson-Kinderhook VFD who happened to be in the area arrived in their own cars. They'd wind up running our pump controls, keeping track of airpack use, and other jobs that free up our members to go into the fire. Our second fire truck -- normally used on car wrecks -- arrived, followed by our second ambulance. County deputies also arrived and took over traffic control on the road in front of the fire, freeing another two firefighters to join the fire attack. The tanker from Goodson-Kinderhook arrived, laying a relay hose-line to our truck and began pumping water to us from a creek about 200 yards away. Later the Glade Springs Volunteer Fire Department arrived with their cascade truck. This is a special vehicle that has the equipment needed to refill the air bottles on our airpacks. The bottles only last twenty minutes on a charge. We had four attack teams of two firefighters each committed inside the building. We worked in about twelve-minute shifts, with fresh fire-fighters going in to take over the hoses and the tired firefighters immediately coming out for rest, drinking water, and fresh air bottles.
After the backdraft I was assigned to help hold a hose on the safety line -- that is, I was the second man on a two man crew that held a pressurized hose as backup for the team that made the initial fire attack on the front door. Had there been further trouble when that crew went in, we'd go in after them and cover their retreat. The second man helps hold the fire hose and makes sure that the nozzle man has enough slack at all times to go where ever he has to. A charged line is heavy and cumbersome, and each man has his hands full. If the nozzle man has to shoot a stream of water up, I have to hold the line down below my knees. If he wants to shoot down, I have to hold the line up over my head. It's not nearly as easy as it looks in the movies. Plus, the second man has to watch out for dangers in every direction but forward. Ceilings falling, floors collapsing, fire breaking out behind us -- you tend to stay kinda busy. I didn't go in on that first attack, and when backup crews arrived, my partner and I were relieved and began carrying empty air bottles uphill to the cascade truck to be filled. It had parked about fifty feet up a hill above the fire because it was completely dark by then and they had large floodlights on boom poles that lit up the entire fire scene from up there.
By then we'd been on scene about 45 minutes and the attack crews had knocked down the worst of the fire and had ventilated the unburned areas of the trailer where smoke and heat had accumulated. Normally we would have had to ventilate the roof by cutting holes in it with a K-12 saw, but the fire had done that for us. The entire roof over the center of the trailer was gone, part of it burned away and the rest pulled down during the fire attack to keep it from dropping burning insulation on our heads. Fire was still burning in the rear of the house and in the ceiling, but we were getting control of it. The trailer was going to be a total loss but we'd be able to save a lot of their belongings.
Their belongings had, in fact, become a major problem. These folks were evidently pack rats; the house was full of stuff. Piles of clothing were stacked everywhere and the rear rooms were full to the ceiling with bulk quantities of food and other stuff, with narrow walkways to get around in. This was adequate for normal use, but for a firefighter in full turnout gear dragging a charged line it was impossible. In places, we actually couldn't move to get to the fire, so we had to start dumping stuff outside. In the living room where the fire had first been knocked down, smoldering clothes and furniture plus the remains of the roof hampered our movements, so the chief ordered the front windows removed and we started throwing out chairs, bookcases, insulation, and thousands of articles of smoldering clothing, all of it thoroughly soaked and now trampled into the mud and ashes by dozens of firefighter boots. I imagine that they were able to salvage some of the clothing. Their washer and dryer, I noticed, were in the separate garage which was undamaged.
With the fire now under control and the fire attack now consisting of knocking out hot spots, I was relieved from muleing air bottles up and down that hill and told to put on an air pack for a rescue job! Turned out that the family dog was nowhere to be found, and was thought to be in the house. Since every room had been filled with smoke and killing heat, it was almost certain that if the dog was in there it was dead. I was given the task of searching for it. So while crews still sprayed water in various places, I and a partner went in. We first looked in the relatively unburned areas where all the bulk food was stored. We dug in closets and turned over beds, figuring that a small dog might have crawled under something to hide and then been suffocated. No dog. Finding a locked door, I forced it open. It was a bathroom. Immediately I pushed open the shower curtain and looked in the tub. Nothing.
"Curt!" I looked up to see the Chief standing at the door and looking at me curiously. "Did you really think that a small dog would lock itself in the bathroom and hide in the bathtub?" While I was thinking of an answer to that, he was called away. Lucky for him.
Now the fire crew was into the longest and messiest part of the job: salvage and overhaul. This means checking all the hidden areas of the structure for hidden fire or hot spots and extinguishing them, plus protecting whatever you reasonably can of the family's possessions. These folks were seriously into recorded music. There must have been 20,000 records in that trailer, 45s, LPs and 78s, and lots of cassette tapes too. And also some serious stereo equipment, all probably junk now. Some tall bookcases of records had been spared the direct flames but the heat had warped and melted the LPs into black goo. The albums near the floor seemed OK, and may possibly have been playable, but they were all soaked from our hoses now. I noticed some stacks of 78s that seemed totally undamaged, which surprised me. I saw others on the floor which had survived the fire but had fallen victim to our fire boots.
Our search for that dog had brought us to the last part of the house, the bedroom on the end. Fire hadn't touched this room, but smoke and heat had. This room had a wall covered with those wall mounted cassette tape racks, filled with maybe 2,000 cassette tapes. Down near the floor the tapes seemed undamaged. I pulled one out and it looked perfectly OK. As I looked up the wall, the tape cases started showing more and more heat damage and at the top of the wall, the cases were almost entirely melted away and the tape shriveled and blackened -- dramatic evidence of how the heat from a fire builds up in a room. Had we not knocked out the fire as early as we did, the heat build up alone would eventually have caused that room to burst into flames. I've seen that happen on training films.
We tossed that room thoroughly and found no small furry body hiding anywhere. That left us with two possibilities: either the dog had gotten out somehow and was hiding in the darkness, or it was part of the thoroughly burned piles of smoldering junk in the burned-out living room. We spent the next hour sifting through the room with pike poles and searchlights, stopping only when the floor suddenly gave way and my partner fell through it up to his waist. I helped him out and we retreated. I notified the Chief that the floor was now unsafe and met the lady of the house who was being helped to the front door to get a look at what was left.
"Ma'am," I said, "we've searched all over the house for your dog and haven't found him, so I think he might have gotten out somehow. We'll keep looking, but he might be scared of all the noise and lights and might not turn up till morning."
She listened to me patiently and then said, "Oh that dog's down at my neighbor's house. She caught him a while back, and I forgot to tell you all."
We spent about four hours on scene with a total of 32 firefighters present, gradually releasing the extra units as we no longer needed them. In the months since that fire I've gotten to know a lot of those folks better. Good people, all of them. They made a tough job a lot easier for us; we'll return the favor someday.
Eventually, the Chief declared the scene secure. We all assembled for a head count, packed up all our gear, and headed back to the station. "Fire/Rescue 101 to Central dispatch. This fire is secured. We are clear at the 10-70 and in route back to station 100."
At that point we were back on duty for another call, so as soon as we got back to the station we all jumped in to clean the truck and tools. The fire hose -- all 700 yards of it -- had to be unrolled, scrubbed thoroughly, and rolled back and stowed on the truck. Supplies had to be restored, soot and grime had to be cleaned off the tools, fuel for the generators and saws had to be topped off, paperwork had to be completed, turnout gear had to be roughly cleaned off and hung up to dry, and several families had to be called to be told that we were on our way home.
But first, we all crowded into the TV room -- dirty, smelling of smoke and sweat as we were -- to catch the eleven o'clock news. The TV crews had been all over the place, not that we were able to pay any attention to them at the time, but now we were ready to see ourselves on the news fighting our first major fire in two months. Since I was the new kid on the block and this was my first fire, I was allowed the seat of honor right in front of the TV. The station news logo flashed on and the local news anchor started his spiel. "Good evening. Firefighters battled a major blaze this evening in Washington County that sent two people to the hospital..." He looks off screen, obviously at his floor director. "But first we join the network for a breaking story." Cut to the network logo...
"This is an NBC News Special Report! A short time ago, Princess Diana was seriously injured in an automobile crash in Paris! ..."
You know, they never did show our fire on TV that night.
Eventually, everyone went home except for me and the others who had the station duty that night. We cleaned ourselves up, found some snacks, and settled back down in the TV room. After a while, I looked at my partner. "Well, Marty, when's the next alarm gonna come in?"
Marty looked thoughtful. "Well," he mused, "I'd say it'll be about 3:30 in the morning. But it'll be a rescue call. It'll be a really good-looking redhead with her toe caught in a bathtub drain."
"Well," I said, "I checked the last bathtub, so you can have this one."
"Fair enough," he said.
All illustrations by Julia Morgan-Scott